Government Leadership Creates Powerful Action on Deep Energy Efficiency and Climate Change

Vermont, California, Kentucky, Pima County, Salt Lake City, Fort Collins, Washington DC. These communities are among those leading by example in setting zero net energy (ZNE) goals for both local policies and their own government buildings. Policymakers in these jurisdictions know that local action is critical to curbing the devastating effects carbon emissions create on the climate and simultaneously reduce energy costs across their facilities. More importantly, they are demonstrating innovative, practical approaches to addressing our serious environmental challenges that will influence and inspire future energy efficiency efforts in real estate, energy services and beyond.Here’s what we know:

  • Commercial and industrial buildings in the United States are responsible for roughly half of our national carbon emissions that cause climate instability. In some cities, like Berkeley, California, that number approaches 80%.
  • ZNE buildings have now passed the “proof of concept” stage, with both more ZNE buildings being constructed as well as larger and more complex buildings.
  • Zero net energy has other benefits such as job creation and economic growth. In Europe, where zero-energy requirements are increasingly required by buildings codes, analysts have valued ZNE construction as a $1.3 trillion business by 2035.
Salt Lake City A new Salt Lake City Public Safety Building is designed to achieve ZNE. Bond funding for construction was approved by more than 65% of voters.

The question now is how to garner the significant carbon reduction benefits of ZNE buildings through policies and programs. After looking at the landscape of effective actions, NBI research has identified nine select policies that local governments can take to advance ZNE buildings and districts. Almost all of these follow from broader climate or energy policies enacted by state legislatures, governors, mayors and city councils.

  1. Develop a Building Energy Codes Roadmap. While broadly requiring ZNE buildings seems far in the future, a codes roadmap that progressively updates codes incrementally over time is an important policy step and a clear signal to the marketplace.
  2. Establish annual benchmarking and disclosure policies and aggregate energy use data to set local energy reduction targets. A better understanding of how much energy buildings actually use provides an important foundation for setting actual energy consumption goals.
  3. Establish rate policies that fairly credit renewable energy production while acknowledging the changing role of the electric grid. Net energy metering is a powerful incentive to promote distributed energy production, particularly in areas with high utility costs or tiered rates structures.
  4. Provide supportive programs by utilities or program administrators. Incentive programs and technical assistance can reduce the risks inherent in piloting new approaches to design and construction.
  5. Create incentives for ZNE at the state or local government level. Local governments can also provide tax incentives or expand zoning regulations to encourage ZNE, using well-established tools such as density bonuses, accelerated permitting and others.
  6. Set ZNE goals for government and other public buildings. Local and state government buildings are an excellent sector in which to demonstrate ZNE and interim energy reduction targets based on measured performance.
  7. Identify and support target sector efforts. Some commercial building market sectors are better targets for ZNE than others due to energy use patterns, ownership and leadership opportunities. Support of target markets, such as schools and government buildings, can accelerate ZNE-related activities.
  8. Encourage district or community-scale renewable energy systems. Renewable energy systems located beyond the boundaries of a single building site offer economies of scale for installation, and in many instances may be preferable to individual building systems.
  9. Adopt improved appliance standards to reduce energy use that falls outside the scope of building energy codes. Because plug loads matter in ZNE buildings, appliance standards play a critical role in reducing energy consumption.

These bold actions require strong government leadership. But the current climate crisis requires such steps. There are states, cities and counties across the country out in front, showing us the way. We must encourage other government officials to follow their lead.